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Priority bills include death penalty, health care and tax study

The Nebraska Legislature has eclipsed the halfway point in its 2013 session, but it won't be a downward glide to the finish line for the remaining 40-some days of the session. There are weighty issues on the overall agenda, pretty much dictating some lengthy days of action on the floor of the George W. Norris Legislative Chamber.

The Legislature also has passed two of its procedural markers. For one, all of the 650 or so originally introduced bills and constitutional-amendment resolutions have had their public hearings. Completion of the hearings also signals the beginning of full-day sessions for the collective body of 49 legislators.

The other procedural significance is that priority bills have been identified. These will receive the bulk of attention for the remainder of the session. Each legislator has chosen a priority bill and each standing committee has picked a pair. The speaker has used his authority to identify 25 more, typically in response to requests by his colleagues.

No priority bill is guaranteed floor debate and an ultimate decision, but if advanced by the committee of jurisdiction, the likelihood is high.

Among the priority bills:

LB 543 proposes to repeal the death penalty and replace it with imprisonment for life as the punishment for aggravated first-degree murder. The only way this sentence could be changed would be if the Board of Pardons - governor, attorney general and secretary of state - commuted the sentence to a term of years and then subsequently, the Board of Parole would approve a petition for parole.

LB 543 is the priority bill for Sen. Ernie Chambers. As of the date for priority designations, March 15, it was still held by the Judiciary Committee. There appears to be a strong possibility that it will have the necessary five votes to advance.

The chairperson of the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee, Sen. Kathy Campbell, chose LB 577 as her priority bill. That proposal, which was advanced to the full Legislature March 19 on a 5-1 vote by the HHS Committee, would have Nebraska exercise its option under the federal Affordable Care Act to expand eligibility for Medicaid.

In effect, any Nebraska adult with household income less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level would become eligible for this means of health-care coverage. It is estimated that through 2020 at least 54,000 uninsured Nebraskans would gain access to health-care coverage.

Neither LB 405 nor LB 406 - related to the state's tax structure - is a priority bill. Both have been indefinitely postponed. But they live on in terms of general subject matter due to LB 613, Sen. Beau McCoy's priority bill.

Recall that LB 405 and LB 406 created quite a stir early this session by seeking to shake up the sales and income taxes. LB 405 proposed to repeal a broad range of current sales-tax exemptions and to apply the resulting revenue as a means for repealing the state's individual and corporate income taxes altogether. LB 406 repealed fewer exemptions and reduced the income-tax rates.

Due to the significant negative impacts on production agriculture, business and industry, health care, education and religious entities, LB 405 and LB 406 had a plethora of broad-based opposition. But the bills sparked momentum for LB 613. It proposes to create a special committee of the Legislature: the "Tax Modernization Committee (TMC)," to study Nebraska's tax laws.

The study will have to consider six elements: fairness, competitiveness, simplicity and compliance, stability, adequacy and interrelationships of the tax system.

The first round of floor debate on LB 613 commenced last week. As currently constructed, the bill would expect the TMC to report findings and recommendations to the Legislature's Executive Board by Dec. 15.

The Legislature's Judiciary Committee prioritized LB 44. It was introduced to bring Nebraska into compliance with a 2012 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which prohibits states from any mandatory sentencing of juveniles to imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole. Nebraska has to fix its policy.

As advanced by the committee to the full Legislature and proposed to be amended, LB 44 would establish a minimum sentence of 30 years imprisonment for conviction of first-degree murder and the current life without parole would be the maximum sentence. The amended version also sets forth several mitigating factors that the sentencing court would have to consider, including the convicted individual's age at the time of the crime, his or her impetuosity, family and community environment, and ability to appreciate the risks and consequences of the conduct.

The Judiciary Committee appears to have struck a reasonable balance on this important policy issue. The number of years of the minimum sentence is likely to be debated, so it will be interesting to observe how the outcome of this legislation unfolds.

Jim Cunningham is executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, with headquarters in Lincoln. Contact him at jrcncc@neb.rr.com.

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